Sunday, August 14, 2011

What NOT to say to a grieving parent

It being over eight months since Vincent passed away, most people we know have already had the "condolence" conversation with us.  Overall, I've been impressed with people's empathy, love and thoughtfulness.  One particularly precious memory is of watching Vincent's video together with old friends.  Afterwards a classmate from high school (now a doctor) choked out a tearful impromptu a-capella version of "See."  Our hearts have been broken.  And many of our friends have entered into our sorrow with us. For that we are grateful.

There have been some well-meaning people, however, whose remarks were rather unhelpful, even hurtful.  I've found that when people DO say or write hurtful or un-helpful things, it's usually because they are not allowing your pain to enter their heart.  It's easier to hold someone else's sorrow at arms length where it can be easily dismissed, waved away, forgotten.  To truly empathize, you must be willing to hold the other person's hurt in your heart, letting their reality become real to you and opening your mind to the awfulness of their situation.

This is truly difficult, perhaps even impossible for some people, even when you are friends.  After all, who wants to imagine their own precious child slowly wasting away, eaten alive by cancerous tumors?  Who would want to imagine life without that same precious child?  These are thoughts too horrible to be borne, so people often close mind and heart and instead regurgitate little phrases they've heard without realizing their utter unhelpfulness.  (For us Christians there exists yet another category of people who are self-appointed God-protectors, determined to squelch any hint of disappointment with God.)

That quick vent aside, here is a list of the most common blunders we've experienced:

1.  "Your child is in a better place."
My internal response:  Well, I wish I was there with them.  Thanks for reminding me that I'm stuck in this crappiness for the rest of my life.  I'd rather they be with me, thank you very much.

2. "At least they're not suffering anymore" (or with sudden deaths - "at least they didn't suffer.")
My internal response: ....ummm, but I am.  And I wish they were still here.  Alive. Preferably not suffering, but at least alive, in my arms.  (Quick note:  Some awesome people have said this while simultaneously sobbing.  I'm totally OK with that.)

3.  "At least you still have your other child."  OR "At least you're still young."
ARGH!  Both of these really get my gander up.  Children are not expendable objects!  No kid can "make up" for the loss of another!  They're not like glasses that break and then are replaced.  Sure, I still have my other child.  That does NOT help me get over the loss of this one.  Can you imagine saying to a little kid who lost their mom that "at least you still have your dad/uncle/brother."  Can anyone replace a mom? Heck no!  And as for my age, yes, it's true I'm still "young."  That simply means I have more time here on earth to grieve the loss of Vincent.  Even if I had dozens of children, none of them would be him.

4.  "It could be worse."  (There are a lot of variations to this one, usually along the theme of "At least xyz didn't happen"  or "Maybe God was keeping you/him from a worse fate").
Yeah, heard a lot of this one, in all its glorious variations.  I don't find it helpful for several reasons. At the drop of a hat I can think of dozens of horrifyingly terrible situations, and someone could easily dismiss them by saying "it could be worse." The terrorist attack on 9/11 was bad, but it could have been worse, right?  Or it's evil what the LRA army in Uganda is doing to children, but it can always be worse, can't it?  That statement is just a dismissal of the awfulness of the situation because "it can always get worse." Ugh.  Not helpful.

And last time I checked, God doesn't have to kill you to give your life a good ending.  He IS altogether-goodness-itself, so most of us believe.  I don't for one second think he let Vincent die because it was the lesser of two evils.  Most people who say this didn't sit with Vincent week after week, watching the tumors steal his nutrition, take over his body, watching him shrink, thirsty, day after day until his heart stopped beating.  It wasn't a good death, but hey, I guess it could have been worse, right? (Side note:  It's totally alright if my husband says this.  But it's preferable not to hear it from anyone else.)

5.  "God's ways are perfect" (Similar to this would be "God makes no mistakes" and "God is always good.")  
Thankfully, I only heard this once but it was so awful I had to include it here.  Please don't use it. Ever.  It is not the job of a comforter to instruct on theology.  Last time I checked, it was Job's comforters who tried to use his tragedies to "teach" him right thinking.  God said he'd only forgive them for what they said if Job offered a sacrifice (which he did).   Honestly, I'm not so sure I would have been as quick to forgive as Job was!  Even Jesus in his hour of deepest need cried out to his father, "Why, why have you forsaken me?"

For the record, if someone you know is grieving the loss of a loved one and asks you questions pertaining to faith and God, by all means, prayerfully answer them.  But don't use dismissive one-liners in hopes of comforting the griever.  It doesn't work.

6.  Say nothing at all
I am not referring in this point to individuals who, after crying with you and giving you a big hug, say nothing.  I am talking about people-you-know-pretty-well-but-haven't-seen-in-a-while that one day start talking to you like nothing ever happened.  This one is almost worse than the other five.  If I was standing in front of you with an amputated limb, blood gushing from the open wound, would you pretend nothing was wrong?  Would you talk about the weather or would you call 911 and get some kind of tourniquet on my stump? Come on folks, don't be immobilized by fear.  Just don't get caught uttering one of the five previous gaffes.  Tricky, I know.

OK, the rant is over now. My next post will be on what TO say to grieving parents.


Jan said...

Beccs...I sit here shaking my head at some of the things that people have am so sorry that you have to be hurt over and over again. i hope and pray that i can comfort you when needed and laugh with you when required...i love you guys and send you comfort..

Dan Stringer said...

Now that is what you call a first-class rant. Well done.

And thanks also for exempting me from blunder #4.

Terri White said...

I hope you know that you continue to amaze me. You have experienced the most painful loss that a mother knows, yet still continue to share your eloquent musings of how you go on. It's obvious that you devote every moment to your family, and would give anything to be able to give of yourself again to Vincent.

I'm sorry people say stupid things.....

Anonymous said...

You were quite gracious to keep your list so short. I think the worse one for me was the person who went on and on about how awful it all is and I felt like I had to comfort her! Yeesh. Spare us.

Anonymous said...

I sure hope I've not qualified for any of these! How absolutely awful...

While I have thought about the fact that Vincent is not suffering, knowing the descriptions of his pain from reading your journal, I cannot bring myself past the fact that you are all still here suffering. Also, as a mother...I cannot begin to fathom going through this with either of my children...please forgive me for selfishly not wanting to think about that right now...I have thought about it...but WOW, it's a painful place to visit even in thoughts. =( I cry in a heartbeat, and that is just my imagination...but you, you live reality.

I've been thinking about you...I missed your last post...but you've been in my thoughts and prayers. Thank you for sharing from your heart...and I hope this little list is a help to those of us attempting to encourage someone who is grieving. I look forward to reading about what I should be saying...I'm eager to learn.

Love you!

Rebecca said...

Thanks folks for your kind comments! I appreciate you all!

leapinglizard said...

Sorry Becky if any time I have been any of those five category. Thanks for highlighting it so I'll know what to say and do.

Luv you all.

Lee Pin

Laura said...

These things are so hard to digest, especially when you know you've said them to others, and hate hearing them now. I think most people have no idea how hurtful these things are, but maybe your post will help them in the future? Wishing you peace in your grief.

Rebecca said...

Oh, Lee Pin, you haven't! I think the main thing is allowing yourself to grieve with the person in question, and letting your hurt just "sit" in your heart without putting labels on it, using it to preach, or quickly dismissing it. When we were with you I felt very loved and supported, thank you.

And Laura, thanks for posting! I know I've said some of these things before too... and I'm thankful that people have had grace for me as I learn what's helpful (and not). I still stick my foot in my mouth every day for OTHER things I say...

Rebecca said...

oops, I mean letting "their" hurt sit in your heart... I guess I should learn to proof-read better!

mltp said...

Dan and Becky, please forgive us if we said any of these while you were here in the Philippines... :'c